In the wake of last week’s attack on Charlie Hebdo, many have had their faith in a free press renewed, once again seeing and understanding its value. The media gets beat up a lot, and sometimes it’s justifiable, but the existence of a free press is essential to democracy. As Thomas Jefferson once said, in one of his many Bartlett’s contributions to the topic of press freedom, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasn’t quite that florid last week when he spoke about the Charlie Hebdo attack at a media event in Vancouver, but clearly in the wake of the tragedy, he and Jefferson were of one mind. “When a trio of hooded men struck at some of our most cherished democratic principles, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, they assaulted democracy everywhere,” Harper said.
I agree with Mr. Harper, which is a rarity. But here’s the thing: Harper doesn’t agree with Harper. Does a man who tightly controls the message of his government to the point of stopping scientists from talking about science without written permission sound like a man who cherishes freedom of expression? Is a prime minister whose cabinet is full of people who actively avoid reporters and debates on the campaign trail a person that believes in freedom of the press?
In the 2011 Federal Election, about 1 in 4 Conservative candidates were named in a list by Rabble.ca for being more than somewhat disinterested in the public discourse, and that list included Jason Kenney, Rob Anders, Julian Fantino, Chris Alexander, Peter Kent, and, as luck would have it, Stephen Harper. Freedom of the press is a wonderful thing, but as noted once again in a Canada.com piece last fall, the Prime Minister is hardly a fan of answering questions, or leaving himself open to being painted in a way that doesn’t suit his message.
To wit, you might recall an incident in the fall of 2013 where the press refused to cover a speech Harper was giving to caucus members after the Prime Minister issued an edict that only photographers and TV cameras would be allowed to attend. The majority of the media, Sun News excluded, didn’t attend, but far from it being a stinging rebuke that taught Harper a lesson about not taking the press for granted, the Conservatives turned the affair into a fundraising opportunity.
“You won’t believe what the Press Gallery just did in Ottawa,” Fred DeLorey, the Conservative party’s director of political operations, said in his fundraising email.
“Rather than send cameras to cover the prime minister’s speech, they attended the NDP’s meeting, and were welcomed with cheers and applause. We knew they wouldn’t give us fair coverage — but this is a new low for the Ottawa media elite.”
I think when you arrange events and get the exact outcome you want, that’s called a self-fulfilling prophecy, never mind that if the Conservatives thought that the media reaction to what happened was a new low, it’s only because they were the ones with the shovels digging the hole. In our highly charged political climate, the fault doesn’t matter as much as whether or not the events conform to a pre-determined narrative: the media is biased against us, so we don’t give them the access that causes them to become biased.
The root of this is not hard to figure out. Michael Den Tandt in the above mentioned Canada.com piece calls them “bozo eruptions,” missteps that affected the party nationally because party candidates say stupid things locally. In an effort to get their majority, the Conservatives and Harper employed strict party discipline, which is why there are times that they stick a little too closely to the talking points, eyes a little too focused on those pieces of paper. But even this has its hiccups.
Remember last fall when Paul Calandra, speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister, answered an opposition question about Canada’s military action in Iraq by doubling, tripling and quadrupling down on a train of thought about how the NDP doesn’t support Israel. Party discipline works as long as the dialogue falls into very specific parameters, like a doll that has five or six programmed lines? You might as well be speaking German in downtown Jakarta.
Communication means taking the risk of being misunderstood, or worse still, being understood for the things you don’t want understood. This fear is at the heart of every thing said, written and released by the Harper government, the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister’s Office. As a consequence, everything they say and do is pre-packaged, focus group developed and presented in meticulous wrapping, which is why it looks so bad when, say, the Minister of Veteran Affairs is accosted by a frustrated wife of a Canadian Forces soldier and all he can do is walk away.
Going into another election year, Harper and Co. should embrace the words he spoke in Vancouver, and truly cherish those freedoms of expression and the press. It’s unfair for the Conservatives to attack Justin Trudeau for talking when they themselves don’t talk, so in 2015 let the people decide based on the words they hear in response to the questions they ask, and while the candidates can take care in their answers, they certainly shouldn’t hide out of fear that they might say the wrong thing.
The rights Harper said he supported in response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo need to be held up against more than the attacks of Muslim extremists, they must also be protected from atrophy, stagnation caused by people who see them as road blocks to getting what they want. The best way to honour Charlie Hebdo is for every politician everywhere to answer every phone call, take every interview, and answer every question without fear. Those cartoonists faced two gunmen, all Canadian politicians face are their constituents.